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For Effective Telephone Focus Groups.. Press 1

Published in October 2003 Issue of Marketing Magazine.

By Theo Muller.


With this article I will shock some of you into total disbelief and doubt, but by the time you have read my arguments, most of you will have reached the same conclusion as I did, once I got my head around it. I am going to argue the case for conducting focus groups by telephone, not as a replacement for (regular?) focus groups, but as a worthy alternative.

Think of this scenario. A national marketer operates a dealer network consisting of eight branches and 12 independent dealers from Kaitaia to the Bluff. "I would like to climb inside their heads and learn how they feel about the National Office, our relationship and how we can do things better", says the CEO, "but to get these people into one room at the same time is a nightmare, and very expensive".

What about this situation. A political party wants to get a feel for and gain a better understanding of people's attitude on a particular "hot potato political issue". Whether it concerns ownership of the country's foreshore and seabed or the future of MMP. The party is looking for insights, impressions and feelings on this issue from a wide range of people across the country.

Here's another example. A national museum wants to undertake some front-end evaluations of a new concept for a proposed long-term exhibition. It's important that these ideas are checked out with people from many parts of the country as visitor statistics tell them that out-of-town visitors make up half of all visitors to the museum.

And what about this one? New Zealand Trade and Enterprise needs to make a submission to a Parliament Select Committee on the issue of four weeks paid annual leave. Before doing so it wants to hear from CEO's and other senior executives of some of New Zealand's top 100 companies about the economic impact on business of a change in legislation governing annual leave. Prior to undertaking a survey amongst senior managers, the research company has recommended to conduct a focus group study amongst these executives in order to get a better understanding of the issues.

The national marketer, the political party, the museum and industry council are looking for insights, feelings, impressions and opinions from a diverse group of people who live and work in all parts of the country. In all four situations a qualitative approach is required, and it is particularly important to capture the synergy from people in a group situation not available from one-on-one telephone interviews or postal questionnaires.

Indeed, a focus group study would have been the logical solution. However, in the case studies mentioned above we are dealing with geographically dispersed individuals, senior executives who are not easily gathered together into one geographic location and a situation which is potential dynamite when individuals (with strongly opposing viewpoints) are in one room together.

Frankly, it is hard to get past the phone in situations like this. Let me explain. We are all getting used to tele-conferencing and video-conferencing and with some imagination the TeleFocusGroup© is not too dissimilar. Instead of talking one-on-one, there is a group of up to eight respondents deliberating under the guidance of an experienced and skilled moderator. The moderator has arranged for a conference call at a certain date and time of the day and all respondents have been advised beforehand. In conjunction with the client the moderator has prepared a topic guide, which allows him or her to guide the discussion along, making sure that the crucial issues are discussed in depth. The entire session is recorded on tape, for the purpose of analysing and reporting.

The key factor for a successful TeleFocusGroup© is an experienced and skilled moderator. Apart from the fact that the moderator has all the qualities of an effective discussion leader, in addition to that he/she needs to be able to do so without the benefit of eyeballing the group respondents. Moderating a TeleFocusGroup© obviously requires the skill to establish rapport with the group and individuals within the group. The moderator is firm, but permissive at the same time. He/she allows the discussion to develop and evolve, without running the risk of it becoming derailed. A fine balance indeed. The moderator uses inclusive language as an invitation to the respondents to participate and express their feelings, opinions and perceptions. The moderator probes for depth on issues, but at the same time is careful not to become an interviewer and "poser of questions". The moderator of a TeleFocusGroup© has the qualities, experience and skills to do all that without being physically present in one room with the respondents.

In discussing the concept of the TeleFocusGroup© with a client recently, she correctly observed that any visual cues like facial expressions and body language are lost to the moderator in a TeleFocusGroup©. This is an obvious advantage to the face-to-face focus group. However, the skilled moderator picks up most emotions hidden in the human voice. Words tell us one thing, but how those words are spoken adds a rich interpretation to the real feeling behind those words.

Sometimes it is in fact counter-productive to have respondents in a room together and I can think of many scenarios where a TeleFocusGroup© would be an ideal alternative.


  • To effectively canvass a geographically dispersed target audience.
  • As an alternative for notoriously difficult to recruit individuals such as high-level executives, physician specialists, lawyers and experts.
  • To deal with certain very sensitive issues where people would be uncomfortable discussing the topic when physically together in one room and where anonymity is needed for a fruitful sharing of ideas, e.g. a discussion about male impotency.
  • When speed is essential.
  • To avoid any possible intimidation from members of the group, e.g. competitors, political opponents.


A clear advantage of a TeleFocusGroup© is that they are often less costly to set up compared to face-to-face focus groups and the client saves money on catering and venue hire and participants will obviously not incur any travel and car parking cost.

We are not suggesting that the TeleFocusGroup© is a replacement for the face-to-face focus group. Obviously not. There are times however, that it is simply not practical or cost effective to do face-to-face focus groups and in those situations the TeleFocusGroup© is an effective (indeed preferred) alternative.

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